June 24, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Core Iran Nuclear Issues Unresolved as Deadline Nears

• The extended round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 on June 16-20 failed to narrow differences on the key issue of Iran’s program to enrich uranium

• The two sides have begun to exchange drafts and agreed to remain in virtual non-stop talks from July 2 until the expiration of the interim nuclear deal (“Joint Plan of Action,” JPA) on July 20

• The June talks included bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States on stabilizing Iraq, but no agreement to cooperate was reached.

Talks to Accelerate Until July 20

From June 16-20, Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) conducted the latest round of nuclear talks in an attempt to reach a comprehensive nuclear settlement by July 20, upon which date the JPA expires. The JPA can be renewed for six more months, but all sides agree that extending the agreement leaves the talks vulnerable to hardliner criticism in Iran and the US.

Iranian, American and other P5+1 officials acknowledged that the June talks did not narrow any gaps on the core issue of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, but they agreed to resume talks on July 2 and to conduct  non stop  negotiations up to the July 20 deadline. The June talks followed a round characterized by similar deadlock in mid-May, which was then followed by meetings among technical experts from all sides.

Still, differences have narrowed on some issues. The June talks resulted in an outline of a draft agreement, even if most of the content remains “bracketed,” meaning its provisions haven’t been agreed to. The specific issues on which agreement is close include:

The heavy-water reactor at Arak: there appears to be tentative agreement that Iran will re-engineer the reactor, which is still under construction, to produce far less plutonium than originally designed, and therefore represent less proliferation threat.

Iran appears to have agreed to convert the hardened uranium enrichment site at Fordow into a research facility rather than an active uranium enrichment facility. In so doing, Iran saves face on its insistence that none of its nuclear facilities be dismantled outright.

Iran has dropped its demand that all sanctions relief commences immediately under a comprehensive deal implementation. Iran has apparently accepted the US formulation that sanctions will be eased in a “stepwise” fashion as Iran completes the requirements of the deal. However, Iran is demanding that if the JPA is extended, additional sanctions will be eased beyond those already suspended.

On June 23, Iran said it might, subject to ratification by its parliament, be willing to accept no-notice inspections by ratifying the “Additional Protocol” to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In advance of the June talks, Iran took a significant step toward complying with a separate agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to clear up questions related to the “Possible Military Dimensions” (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. Resolving these issues is a key requirement of a final nuclear deal. In mid-May, Iran satisfied one of the most significant of seven agreed-on steps by providing IAEA with information on its testing of “Explosive Bridge Wire” detonators. The triggers can be used to construct a nuclear device but also have some civilian applications, for which Iran asserted it needed them.

Stuck on Familiar Ground

The key outstanding issue remains Iran’s enrichment of uranium. The P5+1 are united in insisting that Iran dismantle most of its 19,000 installed centrifuges—keeping in operation at most a symbolic 2,000 or 3,000—in order to assure the international community that Iran could not suddenly produce enough weapons-grade (90% enriched) uranium for a nuclear weapon. During the June 16-20 talks, Iran remained firm in its insistence that it be allowed to install even more centrifuges in order to make enough fuel (5% enriched uranium) for its civilian nuclear power reactor at Bushehr and others it plans to build.  Based on Iran’s hard line, US chief negotiator Wendy Sherman stated that she doubted whether “Iran is really ready to take all the steps necessary to assure the world” that it cannot produce a nuclear weapon. Iran had similar criticism; at the conclusion of the talks Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the US “has not entered the talks with serious resolve.”

Still, the June talks discussed Iran’s proposed alternative that any 5% enriched uranium would, under strict monitoring, immediately be converted to a form that could not be further enriched to weapons grade. And, the P5+1 expressed a willingness to consider formulas other than just number of centrifuges, such as overall production rates, to settle this major issue.

Other Issues and Critics Complicate the Road to an Agreement

As the July 20 expiration of the JPA approached, finalizing a deal was complicated not only by substance, but by outside issues and groups influencing the talks. The unfolding Iraq crisis seemingly aligned US and Iranian interests in preventing any further gains by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in its advance on Baghdad. The US agreed to hold bilateral talks with Iran on the Iraq crisis on the sidelines of the first day of the latest talks, as Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani implied that a nuclear deal would facilitate Iran’s cooperation on the Iraq issue. Although the Administration insisted that the Iraq issue was being kept completely separate from the nuclear talks, critics asserted that the Administration might be tempted to water down its nuclear demands in return for Iran’s assistance in Iraq. The Administration strongly denied that would be the case.

At the same time, some in Congress sought to limit the Administration’s room to maneuver at the talks by insisting that any sanctions-easing would be contingent not just on a nuclear deal, but on Iran’s ending support for militant movements in the Middle East (for example Hizballah and Hamas) and on improving its human rights record. Others in Congress resumed agitating for additional sanctions on Iran, on the grounds that no acceptable nuclear deal is likely to be reached. To many in Congress, an “acceptable” deal is one in which Iran completely dismantles its nuclear infrastructure, a demand Iran clearly will not accept. The Administration restated its strong opposition to any new sanctions while negotiations are still going on.

The Road Ahead

Iran and the P5+1 will likely not reach agreement on all outstanding issues by the July 20 deadline and will therefore extend the JPA for another six months. Iran and the US will not cooperate directly in Iraq, and Washington will resist any Iranian attempt to link its cooperation in Iraq to nuclear concessions. The Administration will threaten to veto any legislation that imposes new sanctions on Iran while the nuclear talks are ongoing.


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